JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Until the Super Bowl’s official Crazy as a Loon Day — that’s Tuesday, otherwise known as Media Day — the most interesting angle not named Peyton Manning or Richard Sherman is almost certainly Champ Bailey’s first trip to the NFL’s showcase after 15 seasons of excellence.
He will no doubt be overshadowed Tuesday, when an international television station will deploy the latest comely provocation — or perhaps just bring back Ines Sainz or Marisol Gonzalez — to propose to or merely hypnotize players desperately trying to follow their coaches’ instructions and stick to the subject, which is still football, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
As most football fans know, Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks in league history, having earned 12 Pro Bowl invitations in 15 seasons. And yet, when we took a thoroughly unscientific poll on KOA earlier this season asking for the five greatest Broncos of all time, Bailey finished tied for 23rd with two votes.
His is the curse of the thoroughly accomplished cornerback who isn’t constantly flapping his gums. In another era, the Broncos’ Louis Wright faced a similar fate. By definition, a great cornerback is virtually invisible. He’s so good that opposing quarterbacks throw at receivers being covered by other people. The great cover corner not only takes his opponent’s best receiver out of the game, he takes himself out, too.
It doesn’t help that Bailey has toiled for Denver during a relative drought. Since he arrived in a rare NFL blockbuster trade, exchanged by Washington for running back Clinton Portis in 2004, the Broncos have made the postseason just four times in 10 seasons. They never made the Super Bowl during his tenure before this year, and they advanced to the AFC Championship Game only once.
“It’s been a long road, but I’m just taking it in stride,” Bailey said Sunday evening, shortly after the Broncos arrived in New Jersey to begin preparations for Super Bowl 48. “I’m not trying to hype it up more than it should be. It’s still football. You’ve got to go out there and perform, and you’ve got to prepare just like we always do. Just trying to let everything stay its course and not trying to get over-hyped about it.”
Now 35, Bailey willingly admitted he has never before attended a Super Bowl, even as a fan.
“I didn’t see any reason to go,” he said. “I’m not going to cheer for anybody, and if I have no special interests in the game, other than being a fan watching it at home, why go? That’s the way I’ve always been.”
Bailey missed most of his 15th season with a foot injury, but returned near the end to play in the nickel defense. When cornerback Chris Harris went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the divisional round of the playoffs, Bailey was drafted to return to his traditional left corner spot for the AFC Championship Game. Because of his effectiveness in the slot as a nickel back, he continued to move inside when the Broncos went to five defensive backs, with reserve Tony Carter coming in to take his place on the outside.
Bailey is likely to play the same role in the Super Bowl. While the Seattle secondary gets much more attention, the combination of Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gives Denver an accomplished pair of cover corners. And Bailey thinks the Broncos defense is playing better lately than its mediocre season-long rankings.
“It is what it is,” he said. “They (the Seahawks) played great all year, so they’re number one in the league. Our offense did the same. I think the last few weeks we’ve become a better defense. That’s all we can focus on — what we have to do — not statistics or you going to the playoffs. We’ve just got to go forward and try to get better than what we were last week.”
Several reporters made attempts to get Bailey to comment on his more talkative counterpart — Sherman, the Seahawks cornerback who made a game-saving play at the end of the NFC Championship Game and then boasted about it, denigrating San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree in the process. Bailey smiled but declined the bait.
“He’s a great corner, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I think most of you guys notice that now because you hear about how much he talks. That’s the way he is. I enjoy guys with some personality. That’s him. I have no bad words to say about him. He’s a good player.”
Does Sherman’s penchant for bravado make it more noticeable when a receiver beats him on a route?
“I guarantee you he’ll say he’ll never get beat again, but we all are going to get beat at some point, as long as we strap them up,” Bailey said. “I think the nature of the position exposes you anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you’re talking or not.”
For whatever it’s worth, the respect is mutual.
“I think Champ Bailey is a fantastic person and player, and I think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer once his career’s done,” Sherman said Sunday. “He’s kind of laid out the base work to be a lock-down corner in this league. He did it for a long time and he’s still doing it. For him to get to a Super Bowl is a great accomplishment for him, especially at 15 years in the game. That’s not easy to do. I think you’ve got to tip your hat to him.”
Calm, pleasant logic has been Bailey’s hallmark ever since he came into the league as the seventh pick of the 1999 draft. He is honest, though seldom inflammatory or provocative. If he never had to do another interview, you get the feeling that would be fine by him.
“This is probably the worst part — sitting here answering these questions I’m going to have to answer all week,” he said. “But I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible and just get ready to play this big game.”
As cool as he is, Bailey’s teammates seem more concerned about winning him a championship ring than he is.
“We’ve been thinking about that the whole season,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “It’s kind of like, this is one guy that everybody wants to win for. You know Champ, he’s a great person and a great teammate to be around and we definitely want to get this victory for him. This is a great moment for him.”